The Stamford Historical Society Presents
Portrait of a Family: Stamford through the Legacy of the Davenports
The Coming of the Railroad, Immigrants and Industrialization
The arrival of the railroad in 1848 sparked an unprecedented growth in Stamford both in terms of the large number of streets laid out as well as the explosion in population compared with earlier years. The availability of cheap immigrant labor provided the impetus for an expansion of industry in Stamford and the establishment of large firms such as Yale and Towne that were to play such a tremendous role in Stamford’s development.
The failure of the potato fields in Ireland in the mid to late 1840’s led to a mass exodus of Irish to Stamford. The railroad provided a means by which those arriving in New York could go to surrounding communities to find work. By 1850 there were already 173 males born in Ireland in Stamford. By 1870, the census showed 622 Irish born men, roughly one quarter of the adult male population of Stamford, and by 1886 there were 4,000 Irish-Americans in Stamford. The rapid increase in Irishmen was mirrored by the rapid increase in population generally. Between 1840 and 1850 the population rose from 3516 to 5000. By 1860, it had again risen to 7185 and by 1870 to 9700. Many of the Irish immigrants found employment working at the Stillwater Company producing iron goods and wires. The company was a Davenport concern owned and operated by Theodore Davenport. By 1850, 28 Irishmen were already working at the Stillwater Iron Works. This immigrant workforce was augmented starting in the 1870s with the arrival of the Poles, Germans, and later Italians, all of whom constituted substantial minorities by the turn of the century.
In addition to the Stillwater Iron Works of Theodore Davenport, a number of other firms had arisen to help provide employment to the many new people in Stamford’s burgeoning economy. Henry J. Sanford purchased Cove Mills, the largest flour mills in Connecticut, and converted them into the Stamford Manufacturing Company, specializing in the production of dyes, drugs and licorice. The Harding Woolen Mills on the Mill River, likewise provided employment within walking distance of the immigrant enclaves. Most important of all, however, was Yale and Towne, which began operations in March of 1869 and would grow to employ 1000 people by 1892, fully one fourth of the entire population of the town.
In 1836, there had been only eleven named streets in all of Stamford. By 1866, there were 33 in addition to a number of impressive buildings produced by architect Thomas Dixon, including the Union House Hotel, St. John’s Episcopal Church and the Concert Hall. New church building sprung up about the town, and the first graded school, Center School, was opened in 1852. After the devastating fire of 1861, much of the downtown was rebuilt with brick structures for the first time. The establishment of the Stamford Gas-Light Company in 1854 led to the illumination of houses and shops downtown.
Stamford in the Gilded Age 1865–1893
Over 600 men served in the Civil War from Stamford. Three volunteer companies were raised in Stamford early on in the war and Companies A and B of the 28th Regiment were almost entirely made up of Stamford men. The community of Stamford raised some $76,000 during the course of the war to pay soldiers and buy supplies. Theodore Davenport served as an officer at many of the meetings held to garner support for the Union cause. After the conclusion of the Civil War, life resumed, but at a quickening pace as industry and population continued to grow. By 1880 there were 11,297 people in Stamford, nearly 1/4 were Irish American. The total population was at 15,700 ten years later and by 1900 had grown to 18,838. Large numbers of small scale factories and manufacturing concerns appeared over the final decades of the 19th century, producing everything from wallpaper to billiard balls, from pool tables to pianos in addition to the ever present locks of the Yale and Towne Lock Company. By 1889 there were 185 named streets, and significant populations had grown in Glenbrook and Springdale. The Ferguson Public Library opened in 1882 and a new Town Hall had been constructed of brick in 1871. The state armory was built near the railroad station in 1884, the same year the indomitable Theodore Davenport passed away, in his 90s. The Davenports continued to play a role in the development of industry, now under yet another John Davenport whose company produced metal castings, fittings and piano plates. This John also continued as a bank officer, following in Theodore’s footsteps and was treasurer of Stamford’s Blickensdorfer Typewriter Company.
Late 19th Century Social Issues
Life in the downtown area improved for citizens in the last part of the 19th century. In 1871 the Stamford Water Company piped clear water from North Stamford ponds into the downtown area. In 1886 electrical illumination was first provided to the city center, becoming more reliable after 1893 with the merger of the Stamford Gas-Light Company and Electric Company into the Stamford Gas and Electric Company. Trolley service began in the 1880s and the Stamford-Norwalk Telephone Company was founded by Henry Towne in 1880. Roads began to be paved after 1889 and provisions for sewage disposal were underway by 1885. The schools were also reorganized. In 1872, a child attended one of 15 town district schools, or one of 6 private schools. The Center School was the only one-graded and most of the country schools were staffed by a single teacher. The Green School, serving the Irish community, was notoriously overcrowded. The drive for centralization was championed by Samuel Fessenden, a lawyer and son-in-law of Theodore Davenport. This group was opposed by the Irish community and Green School Board and drew support from the Democratic lawyers James Olmstead and Galen Carter, Fessenden’s law partner and brother-in-law. With the support of the state educational leadership and others, Fessenden’s group triumphed and schools were placed under a single nine-member school committee. Fessenden would later play a key role in Stamford’s transformation from borough to City, drafting the final City Charter in 1893. At that time Fessenden was State Attorney General. By 1893 four-fifths of the population lived in one-fifth of the area (downtown) and the needs of this group for social services and urban governance prompted the adoption of a City Charter.
Stamford in the Early 20th Century
The conversion of Stamford to a full-fledged industrial city was accomplished during the final decade of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. Downtown large commercial and industrial buildings of brick and stone replaced residential structures of wood. Many public service buildings were also present including banks, theatres, schools, hotels and the new Ferguson Library building, constructed in 1911. A new Town Hall was constructed in 1904 to replace the 1871 structure after it fell victim to a great fire. New industrial concerns arose while older ones expanded. By 1921, Yale and Towne had grown to encompass a 25 acre site bounded by Pacific, Henry, Canal and Market streets. In 1919, the Stamford Manufacturing Company had been destroyed in a great conflagration, leaving Yale and Towne Stamford’s only large employer.
Transportation around the city was eased through the establishment of electrified trolleys in 1894. Trolleys continued to provide service until 1933. At the same time cars became more and more present in the city, and with the improvement of the roads pedestrian and bicycle traffic increased as well. The expansion of the rail lines to four tracks, the introduction of express trains, the construction of stations on either side of the tracks (1905) and the electrification of the lines (1907) greatly facilitated travel to New York. By 1913, eighty trains a day were traveling between Stamford and New York. Many individuals such as Amzi, John, and Benjamin Butler Davenport maintained homes in Stamford and in the City of New York. Others commuted daily as many do today.
The trains also brought many new immigrants, increasingly from Italy, Poland, Greece, and Austria-Hungary. Between 1900 and 1910 Stamford was one of the fastest growing cities in Connecticut. The population grew 53% during this time from 18,838 to 28,836. By 1910, one-third of Stamford’s residents were foreign born. Until 1930, at least 1000 newcomers arrived in Stamford each year. Many of these groups organized their own fraternal, cultural and athletic societies which became the bases for current organizations such as the Stamford Italian Center and the Jewish Community Center. These groups also founded many religious institutions that are still with us today. Stamford’s black population expanded also during these years from some 275 people in 1900 to 2138 by 1930. Like the other immigrants, blacks found work in Stamford’s burgeoning industrial sector or as unskilled manual laborers.
The ready pool of labor drove expansion in the industrial sector. Between 1900 and 1910 the number of manufacturing concerns grew from 49 to 86, and the value of products increased 123% more than any Connecticut city during that decade. Yale and Towne’s workforce expanded 600% from 1892 to 1916 to an all time peak of 6500. Other growing concerns included the Blickensdorfer typewriter company and Pitney Bowes, established in 1919.
The needs of the ever growing City were recognized by the progressive movement championed by Homer Cummings and Charles Davenport Lockwood. The two men formed the legal partnership of Cummings & Lockwood in 1909 and the firm still exists today. Cummings went on to serve as Mayor of the City and both he and Lockwood rose to national prominence. Both pushed for the modernization of the City and for the merging of the City and Town of Stamford, which was not to occur until 1949.